Information Services Today: The Consistency of Change in Our Information/Learning Landscape

April 10, 2015

Given all we read and hear every day, we could easily (and mistakenly) assume that being overwhelmed by information and a rapid technology-driven rate of change is a new phenomenon—but it’s also relatively easy to discover what a consistently-important challenge the flow of information and the pace of change has been, if we delve into Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction.

Information_Services_Today--CoverWhile the entire book is—among other things—a richly rewarding exploration of the changing nature of librarianship/the work of information professionals, one important moment of change- and information-management revelation comes in Christine Pawley’s contribution (Chapter 2, “Libraries and Information Organizations: Two Centuries of Experience”) as she writes about how “new technologies lead to information overload”: “…William S. Learned noted a ‘phenomenal improvement in speed and accuracy of communication’ and complained that even the trained student finds the time required thoroughly to examine a topic in an unfamiliar field almost prohibitive”—not today, but in 1924 (Information Services Today, pp. 13-14). If we pursue this theme by revisiting Sarah Houghton’s “Being Wired or Being Tired: Ten Ways to Cope With Information Overload” (originally published online July 30, 2008 in Ariadne), we find the reminder that “As far back as the sixteenth century people were complaining about the wide range of information they had to consume in order to contribute to society.”

Flip_Your_Classroom--CoverAny of us involved in training-teaching-learning within libraries and other learning organizations viscerally know and understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by information and change. We recognize that an important component of our learning-facilitation efforts is to help learners come to terms with the changes they face within any learning opportunity. We also are struggling to find words evocative enough to describe what we do so we recognize the ever-expanding breadth and scope of our work and offer terminology that helps others understand how much what we offer has changed. And we do understand that the goal of “keeping up” with educational technology and even with the basics of how to learn in a world where the way we learn is continuing to evolve (e.g., through the flipped classroom model, through massive open online courses—MOOCs—and through innovative blended-learning opportunities) is about as easy to reach as the pot of gold at the base of a rainbow.

At a certain level, it’s somewhat comforting to read those words that Learned wrote in 1924 and that Houghton wrote in 2008: we realize that others have faced and survived the challenges we continue to face. It’s also comforting and inspiring to read those words within the context of Information Services Today’s book-length exploration of our changing learning and information landscape: we see that the nature of library collections is changing—but that has always been true. We see that the nature of libraries is changing—but that, too, has been true for many decades. We see that library users’ expectations are changing—another consistent element within the library and information services world. We see that the tech tools that information professionals use continue to evolve and that the need to continually upgrade our skills is essential—but the best of our current and former colleagues have always recognized that their work required and continues to require a commitment to lifelong learning. And I suspect many of my best training-teaching-learning colleagues in a variety of learning environments would have little argument that continual learning and a responsiveness to change are among the requirements and the pleasures of the work we do.

The theme of change is particularly apparent in Lisa Gregory and Amy Rudersdorf Information Services Today chapter on “Digital Resources.” As they discuss a digital librarian’s roles (cataloger, collector, educator, legal expert, manager, negotiator, researcher, and technologist), we see some terms that would be familiar to most librarians/information professionals as well as to many trainer-teacher-learners, and we see some terms that reflect how quickly our professions are evolving. Nowhere is the need for adaptability among all of us more apparent than in the section about technologists: “The technology skill sets needed by digital librarians are as varied as the technologies that surround us. However, most digital librarians should—at the minimum—have a basic understanding of content management systems, databases, some metadata standards, and web technologies (p. 102)”—advice that can easily guide our training-teaching-learning colleagues to greater opportunities for success.

All of this would seem to be the fodder for nightmares among those who despair of ever keeping up with the flow of information and the rate of change within our lives. But some of what we gain through contemporary learning experiences themselves is an understanding that keeping up has long required an ability to sift through what comes our way. Filtering out what is less important. Applying what we can apply. Relying on our colleagues and other members of our personal learning networks to help us fill the gaps we face. And developing what might be coined as yet another form of literacy: “information-overload literacy”—the skill and the ability to know when it’s time to step away from the flood of information and rapid pace of change long enough to relish what we have absorbed.

N.B.: This is the second in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”


Information Services Today: What We Call Ourselves

April 8, 2015

We don’t have to go very far into Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction to reach the first of the challenges many of us face in the contemporary workplace, where job descriptions and workplace responsibilities evolve and increase at a dizzying, overwhelming pace : our language has not been keeping up with the changes taking place within our professions.

Information_Services_Today--CoverIt’s not as if the words “librarian” or “library” are in any danger of disappearing anytime soon; they do, at significant levels, remain evocative, familiar, and comforting even though they inadequately describe the people and the organizations under discussion. On the other hand, we see throughout Information Services Today the use of “information professionals” and “information organizations” (defined at the beginning of the book’s preface as “all places that manage, create, store, or provide information”) as terms more suggestive and reflective of what those organizations and those people who staff them offer to members of the onsite and extensive online communities they serve.

Proposing and supporting changes in our workplace nomenclature is far more than an intellectual exercise; it’s an essential element of the process of acknowledging change by seeking and adopting terminology that reflects what we do and—equally importantly—helps others understand what we offer in our continually-evolving workplaces. It’s the same issue described by Theodore Levitt in his widely-read Harvard Business Review essay about how railroads made a mistake by describing themselves as being in the railroad rather than transportation business. It’s visible in the discussion about using “information professional” and “information organization” as alternatives to “librarians” and “libraries”; it’s visible in the continuing discussion of using “library member” or “library user” in place of “library patron,” which I first documented in an article for Infoblog in 2008; and it’s visible in the field we most commonly refer to as “staff training” but more accurately could be described in numerous other ways, including “learning facilitation.”

signorelli200x300[1]This challenge of deciding what to call ourselves clearly isn’t new for any of us involved in training-teaching-learning—an endeavor that is a core part of what many library staff members/information professionals do every day. Four years ago, Lori Reed and I (in our book Workplace Learning & Leadership) were already documenting some of many terms being applied to those of us involved in training-teaching-learning just in libraries and nonprofit settings: “…director, volunteer services and staff training; training coordinator; training and development manager; training manager; training officer; chief learning officer; learning and development coordinator; staff development and training coordinator; staff development librarian; staff development manager; continuing education coordinator; learning manager; and organizational development manager.” The situation has only become more challenging as our ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) colleagues began the process (in 2014) of changing the organization’s name to ATD (the Association for Talent Development) and replacing “workplace learning and performance” with “talent development” to reflect the idea that “talent development” is the overall, far-more-nuanced description of what our efforts are designed to offer and foster.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandThe importance of what we are facing and attempting to address became even clearer to me during a dinner conversation with colleagues at the 2014 New Media Consortium Summer Conference (held in Portland, Oregon). My personal moment of revelation struck as I listened to a colleague describing how a “school library” had been replaced by an “innovation center” and how school administrators, teachers, and students were struggling to come to terms with what that change meant in terms of what was available to them within that redesigned and renamed space. As I noted at the time, “the challenges we all face as our learning environments quickly change to reflect the rapid rate of technological change…reflect the rapid rate of technological change that is all around us: we literally don’t have the words to describe what we are doing in a world where our old labels (e.g., teacher, trainer, learning facilitator) are simply not broad and rich enough to capture the nuances of all we are doing. It’s as if we’re facing a vocabulary deficiency…”

As we read through the 39 chapters provided written by a large group of information professionals for inclusion in Information Services Today, we gain an understanding of the magnificent range of services and resources information professionals provide through information organizations. And, in the process of absorbing that content, we gain a better understanding of why it’s worth looking for alternatives to “library,” “librarian,” “library patron,” and “trainer” within the dynamic and enticing worlds we are lucky enough to inhabit, foster, and support.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”


Nurturing Change: Resistance is Futile/Resistance Is Necessary

March 23, 2014

One of those catch-phrases that sticks with anyone familiar with Star Trek is “resistance is futile,” and I’m among those who jokingly mutter the phrase when facing seemingly insurmountable challenges.

But a conversation this morning with a wonderful colleague who is facing numerous difficult challenges made both of us propose a complementary thesis—“Resistance is necessary.” Because it hints that many of our best and most productive endeavors will be accompanied by tremendous resistance. Because an alternative to resistance is resignation. And because refusing to succumb to despair when we are facing our most daunting professional and personal challenges ultimately carries us through our darkest times.

It’s a fact of life that we all face those dark nights that San Juan de la Cruz captured so beautifully, so poignantly, and so poetically in the sixteenth century—and that if we are willing to work our way completely through that darkness toward whatever light awaits us rather than turning back and remaining without hope, we emerge transformed in ways we could not have previously imagined.

We can’t, however, do that alone—which is why the conversation my friend and I had his morning meant so much to both of us. She’s one of an ever-growing group of people I know who are currently facing extremely challenging and discouraging situations. They are very talented. Very creative. Very well respected by colleagues in their tremendously different industries. They were hired for their commitment to and reputation for inspiring positive changes meant to benefit the people and organizations they serve. They willingly accepted the challenges they face because they believed they would receive the support required to reach the goals they agreed to pursue. And they have found themselves, at various times, pushed to the point of despair—wondering what they “did wrong” rather than asking why some who should be supporting them are, in essence, betraying them and those who might ultimately benefit from the energy, heart, and soul they put into their endeavors.

It’s hard for them to avoid depression and resignation. And it’s hard for those of us who admire them to see what they are experiencing. But just as each of them has reached bleak moments in their darkest nights, they have found or are finding glimmers of light from kind words and expressions of support from family, friends, and colleagues. They hear from the beneficiaries of the efforts they have been making. They are finding hope because members of their communities are reaching out to support them in their individual moments of need, writing to them, and writing about them.

HGS--Gratitude[1]--2013-10-31This provides us with an important reminder after we have passed through our own dark nights: the smallest act of kindness or well-timed expression of understanding verbally or in writing, the willingness to simply listen to a friend or colleague in need, can make a world of difference for that person. And for everyone else that person touches directly or indirectly.

Resistance makes us reexamine what we are attempting to accomplish. It helps us to be sure we are following the best possible path. It helps us eliminate the weakest aspects of our approach. It forces us to ask a very important question: Is what we are doing worth doing? And, ultimately, resistance leads us to better understand, appreciate, and react effectively to the opposition our efforts are creating so all of us can find the common ground that produces positive change.


Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

July 8, 2011

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.


Technology, Change, and Learning: Smiles Replacing Stress

August 25, 2010

If we want to initiate a lemming-like run from our workplaces, all we need to do is make the following announcement: “We’re going to make some huge, wonderful changes around here with a new piece of technology we just purchased.” Want to make this even better? Disseminate the announcement early Monday morning or late on a Friday afternoon—particularly just before the beginning of a three-day weekend. Then notify the staff of your Human Resources division that you’re trying to help the economy by creating new job opportunities for those willing to apply for positions recently vacated by the staff that you have chased away.

When we approach technology training face-to-face or in online environments, we need to remember that we are proposing some of the most emotionally wrenching concepts we can inject into our colleague’s lives: change (“Why me?”), technology (“I’m so done with new technology”), and learning (“I’m too busy trying to do my job to take the time to learning something new”). If we find colleagues avoiding us in the hallways or at our local coffee shop, we only have ourselves to blame.

To turn the situation around, we need to start by putting ourselves into our learners’ shoes. And classrooms. And online learning sessions. We need to remember that technology is a tool, not the focus of our attention. If we work with our learners to determine how new technology helps all of us do our jobs more effectively and enjoyably—and we had better be sure this is true before we start offering that promise to prospective learners—we’re on the road to creating enthusiasm and effective communities of learning.

If we make the technology we are introducing an integral part of our face-to-face and online learning opportunities, we show that we have embraced what we are helping to facilitate and disseminate. We also, at the same time, can see how learners are absorbing or struggling with what they are attempting to master. Empathy as a learning tool, anyone?

And if we are honest about the benefits and the problems of what we are offering to the members of our learning communities, we are helping to strengthen those communities to the benefit of all whom we are serving.

When we move into online learning, we need to remember that we are introducing an additional level of stress into the lives of those who are new to distance learning: not only do they need to struggle with the specific technology they are attempting to learn, but they face the additional challenge of learning how to learn in ways that may not initially be comfortable for them. By making ourselves available before, during, and after the formal presentations of online learning opportunities, we demonstrate our commitment to our learners and to online learning and we offer, by example, the sort of support which is essential to successful learning.

Learning, as our colleagues at Fort Hill Company have documented, is not an isolated event, set apart from the rest of our lives. Nor is it distinctive from what we often mistakenly think of as “our real job.” In a world where change is constant and in which those who do not learn are quickly left behind, we are responsible for helping our colleagues learn. We need to find ways to make the learning process enjoyable and rewarding rather than dispiriting. If we are successful, we contribute to the building and the nurturing of communities of learning, and everybody wins.

N.B.: Paul is facilitating two 90-minute online sessions—on September 16 (“Using Technology to Enhance In-Person Library Training”) and September 23, 2010 (“Using Technology for Remote Library Training”)—under the auspices of ALA TechSource. Participants can register separately for the September 16 or September 23 sessions, or can receive a discounted rate by registering for both.


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